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California Death Penalty on Trial

The death penalty's constitutionality is being argued in a California courtroom today. Credit: davidhills/iStock.
The death penalty's constitutionality is being argued in a California courtroom today. Credit: davidhills/iStock.
August 31, 2015

PASADENA, Calif. – The death penalty itself is on trial today in the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court in Pasadena.

California's attorney general is appealing last year's ruling that declared the state's system of capital punishment unconstitutional.

The federal judge in that case said the extensive delays mean the system itself constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, and does not deter crime or exact retribution.

Matt Cherry, executive director of the anti-capital punishment group Death Penalty Focus,says this is the first time that type of argument has been made. He notes the average time between conviction and execution in California is 25 years.

"When those delays extend into decades and decades so that most of the people who are sentenced to death will never be actually executed, then I think the whole system collapses under the weight of its own contradictions," he states.

The state argues that delays in the system are inevitable because all appeals must be exhausted to make sure no innocent person is executed.

If the prior ruling is upheld, the case could be appealed to a panel of circuit court judges, and then to the U.S. Supreme Court.

California re-instituted the death penalty in the late 1970s, and since then more than 900 people have been sentenced to death with just 13 executed.

Cherry says a death sentence in California really amounts to life in prison with a small chance of execution.

"Those delays are so unreasonable and so arbitrary that the death penalty really does not function anymore in California," he maintains.

The current case originated with the 1995 death sentence of Ernest Jones, who was convicted of raping and fatally stabbing his roommate's mother.

Suzanne Potter, Public News Service - CA